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Ancient Art
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Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery
PrevNext2 of 2
Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery

Relief with Gladiators

ca. 2nd century A.D.


122.6 × 80.2 × 6.2 cm (48 1/4 × 31 9/16 × 2 7/16 in.)
Gift of Prof. William Kelly Simpson, B.A. 1947, M.A. 1948, Ph.D. 1954

Gladiatorial games originated as funerary rites in which the deceased was celebrated through physical competitions. For this reason, relief depictions of gladiatorial combat were sometimes used as grave markers—probably not for gladiators themselves, but for those whose lives such games may have commemorated. The games were particularly popular during the Roman Empire; in fact, most of the known funerary depictions of gladiators are Imperial in date. As government sponsorship grew in the Empire, the games took on political overtones. By staging massive and elaborate series of combats that often lasted for months and involved the slaughter of scores of men and wild animals in arenas throughout the empire, the Romans culturally unified their territory and affirmed their power, both to create such dramatic spectacles, and over life and death themselves.

Gladiators fought in armor and with weapons specific to different types of warriors. The two figures on this relief, which is probably from a funeral stele, are each armed with a short sword and equipped with a helmet; a long, rectangular shield; a manica (arm guard) on the right arm; and an ocrea (leg guard) on the left leg. The helmet styles differentiate the gladiators: the one with the crested, fish-like helmet is a murmillio (from a Greek word for fish); the other figure, with a large, rounded helmet is a provocator, a type of gladiator also armed with a gladius, but with a shorter shield. On the relief the same pair of figures appears four times in three registers, each time in a different position of combat. Presumably, this represents the progression of a contest, and would have originally ended with one of the figures—most likely the provocator—admitting defeat and submitting to the judgement of the crowd. Roman depictions of gladiators often showed the combatants poised at the instant where combat stopped for the crowd to decide whether or not to spare the loser, emphasizing the spectators’ active control over life and death.

On view

Sale, Christie's, New York, December 7, 2000, lot 637; probably sold through Frederick Schultz, Ancient Art, New York, to William Kelly Simpson (1928–2018), Katonah, New York, December 7, 2000 (on loan to the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn., 2001–2009); given to the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn., 2009

This work appears on our "Antiquities and Archaeological Material with Provenance Documentation Gaps" page.

Christie’s New York, New York, Christie’s New York Antiquities, sale cat. (December 7, 2000), 175, lot. 637.

“Acquisitions,” https://artgallery.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Pub_Bull_acquisitions_2010.pdf (accessed 2012).

Pablo Molina Ortiz, “Un Nuevo Emparejamiento Gladitorio Procedente de Éfeso,” Espacio, Tiempo y Forma (2014): 101–7, fig. 1,2,3.

Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of such records is ongoing.